William Leonard

Hey, ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. I’m William Leonard, your host and investor here at Valor Ventures. Valor’s a leading seed-stage venture capital firm here in Atlanta, Georgia. Today, I’m really excited to sit down with Candace Mitchell Harris, co-founder and CEO of Myavana. Candace, thank you for joining me today. 

Candace Mitchell Harris

I am doing wonderful. How are you? 

William Leonard

I am doing well. Thank you for your time this morning. I’m really excited to have you dive more into the haircare space for our listeners. But I know you have a really interesting background. You’re an Atlanta native. I’d love for you to just kind of give our listeners a quick intro to the Candace Mitchell Harris story. Who are you? Where’d you grow up and what’s your background?

Candace Mitchell

Yes, so I grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia. It was quite a fun experience, I will say. Me, my family, my friends, always have been very active in the Atlanta community in different ways. One huge way was through my high school, Stevenson High School, we had the best band in the land. You can ask anyone who’s into that marching band culture. We also had a wonderful football team. I was a cheerleader, a fun fact. A lot of Friday Night Lights, and a school that really supported my leadership, my interest in technology. I ended up going to Georgia Tech shortly after graduation. It’s been a journey ever since.

William Leonard

That’s interesting. You grew up on the east side of Atlanta, you went to Georgia Tech. What really influenced your decision to go to Georgia Tech and ultimately stay local?

Candace Mitchell

Yes, well, interestingly enough, I applied to some HBCUs. I applied to some Ivy League schools, got accepted, and thought that Georgia Tech was my last choice on my list. But at the time, they actually rolled out a completely new Computer Science curriculum that was really leading the nation at the time. They really broke down computer science into different threads or specializations. It really spoke to what my interest was at the time, which is human-computer interaction. Their curriculum really had everything I could possibly imagine in terms of being immersed in that world, but also really gaining the knowledge and the experience in that field, to really do anything that I would want to do post-graduation. I also had the HOPE Scholarship. And so financially, that was a huge factor. Free college. And at the time, it was kind of a financial burden for my family to have to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for their private schools at the time. What I thought was settling for my last resort actually ended up being the best decision I could have ever made. It really changed the trajectory of my life. It was tough. It was tough, but it was truly the best decision I could have made. Go Jackets!

William Leonard

Jackets. That’s really interesting. What you thought was going to be your last choice, ultimately ended up being a school you attended. What did you end up studying at Georgia Tech?

Candace Mitchell

I studied Computer Science With A Specialization In Media In People which combined really unlocked for Human and Computer Interaction World. I studied everything from Cognitive Psychology, of course, all the programming classes you can imagine, Robotics, Computer Graphics was really across a spectrum of how humans interact with computing and it opened the door to many studies which eventually led me to start my career. But I started with a really great foundation and especially in research as well. It was just really a major that had a lot of different disciplines that you could apply either to a corporation or industry life or entrepreneurship. That’s what I love the most about it.

William Leonard

You were kind of alluding there to more of the business side of things. I’m curious when you were at Georgia Tech, when did the idea for Myavana come along for you? What really sparked this idea in your head?

Candace Mitchell

The idea came along, I want to say about January 2009. I was number one going natural, for the first time since I was like five years old. 

William Leonard

And before you dive in, can you explain what that means for some of our listeners? What is the process of going natural life for an African American woman or a woman with your type of hair texture?

Candace Mitchell

Yes, so mostly for Black women, one of our rites of passages is getting a relaxer as a young child. Relaxers really started as a way to straighten our hair, somewhat permanently straighten our hair. It was really because of society’s standards of what type of hair was acceptable. Straight hair was more acceptable than big, curly, coily, kinky hair. That’s just how we grew up. And during, I want to say around 2008, there was a huge natural hair movement that was born really from the emergence of YouTube, and YouTube as a platform to do tutorials. A lot of women started documenting their journey of no longer wearing relaxers. It was also an awakening in terms of our identity to realizing that my hair does not have to look like this in order to be accepted. That really started a movement of women being comfortable wearing their natural hair, but also trying to figure out how to take care of natural hair. I went through that process, it was the summer. I remember studying abroad. I was in Barcelona, Spain. And of course, you can’t get good hair products over there. I decided to just start wearing my hair naturally. I was really asking around, I saw my friends, like what products they’re using. Everyone had a different answer. Or everyone’s like, oh, try this, try that. My roommates had a bathroom full of hair products. Now I asked my mom, my sisters, and I quickly realized that it was such a trial and error process. And also at the time, there were limited types of products that work well for Black women’s hair. I started studying the science of hair so that I could learn what works best for my type of hair. And during that process, one morning, I actually got an email announcing the InVenture Prize pitch competition, where they were empowering students to become inventors. You would invent your own product and pitch it. I thought to myself, like, “Wow, I wonder if I could build some type of software that could tell me what type of products are best for my hair?”

William Leonard

Was this a Georgia Tech competition?

Candace Mitchell

This was at Georgia Tech. I was going into my senior year. I started researching and actually, one of the most influential people at the time was my professor who taught me algorithms and entrepreneurship. His name is Merrick Furst, he started the InVenture Prize competition, and then later started at Flashpoint, which is a startup accelerator program that I ended up joining to launch my company. And so at that time, I just had that lightbulb moment like, “Huh, I wonder if I could really build this to be beneficial for other women now going natural trying to figure out products to use for their hair.” And so I entered the pitch competition, I developed the prototype, started pitching it in front of investors who were coincidentally all white, bald men. That was a huge barrier to get them to understand the world of natural hair and the hair care industry, which is a multi-billion dollar market. That kind of started getting my feet wet in terms of what entrepreneurship was really all about.

William Leonard

That’s a really interesting story. You experienced this problem, firsthand in a whole nother country, where access to traditional hair care products was super limited. I think this is interesting. You go on to start this business. Is it wrong to assume that the majority of your experience was super technical? On the coding, the algorithm side of things? Were you comfortable with the business aspect of things? And if you weren’t, how did you kind of bridge your two areas of knowledge and expertise to build this company? 

Candace Mitchell

That’s a great point because I wasn’t as familiar with the business side. While I was working on the prototype, I was really doing a lot of market research to really understand this industry. At this time, I was researching like L’Oreal, Procter and Gamble, and Revlon, who were the market leaders at the time. But then also, you have independent Black hair salons and beauty supply stores, and you have content creators. It was just all over the place, like, in another very pivotal part of this industry was the hair shows. There are these massive trade shows that focus on the hair industry. They have hair competitions, they’re selling hair products, and so there was so much going on, and it has to really understand one, how can I reach the consumer? How can I best reach the consumer? How do I navigate all the other parts of this ecosystem that are also serving the consumer? How do we make money from that? That was actually my biggest learning area. To really understand how to best enter the market and then what to build. And that brought me to Flashpoint, which was a whole eye-opening experience is what I can really say.

William Leonard

That’s unique because we have a wide array of listeners that tune in every week, and range from investors to founders of seed, Series A company to even founders that were similar to students at a local university, experiencing a problem wanting to build something. If you could give advice to a student who was maybe a junior at Georgia Tech, he or she is a super technical computer science major but they have a business idea, what are some of the practical steps they can do to bridge their two areas of expertise similar to what you like? Are there any resources out there now that exist for them to use?

Candace Mitchell

The biggest thing is CREATE-X. CREATE-X is now the big Oasis for anyone wanting to be an entrepreneur, which kind of started out as InVventure Prize, but it’s much more comprehensive. That would be your place to start. But as far as actual tactics, what I will say is to talk to as many potential customers as possible, because I think, especially at that age, my biggest hurdle was being an introvert. Being shy and being more comfortable behind the computer screen. It took a lot out of me to be more social and to actually talk to people to get their feedback, get their perspective, and to be as resourceful as possible. I would issue a challenge to anyone listening to this, to ask one person for one thing that could help you every day towards your goal, because we just generally don’t ask enough. We don’t ask for help enough. My experience is everyone loves helping entrepreneurs because we’re kind of like the underdog. We are challenging the system, building something new, and you’d be surprised just by reaching out, just who will give you a response.

William Leonard

I think that’s excellent advice. Really get in front of your customer and ask questions. Literally, the worst thing somebody could say is No. The best thing they can do is open the door for you. 

Candace Mitchell

That’s something you have to get used to as well. The “No-s” and it really doesn’t mean no. It just means not yet or not this door, like there’s a better door, there’s a better path for you. Getting used to that helps you build resilience. That’s the number one quality for a successful entrepreneur.

William Leonard

I agree. When you think about Myavana, what is the product actually doing to help simplify or bring efficiency to the haircare world? Can you kind of talk to us about what a customer can expect when they’re using Myavana?

Candace Mitchell

Myavana, we are building the future of haircare. We use artificial intelligence and machine learning to take a photo of your hair and recommend the best products to use. No more trial and error, no more wasting time, wasting money, and also damaging your hair, right? Because once you’re using so many different things, that affects the health of your hair. We have simplified this entire experience through our hair analysis kit, which is very similar to 23andme. You get a kit in the mail with instructions on how to comb your hair, send your hair strands to our lab, do a full assessment, and create a personalized hair care plan. We have a mobile application for you to get recommendations on the go. If you need to know what to do with your hair right now, download the app, take a photo that takes you to the right products. We’ve built retail partnerships where you know exactly where to buy it at the closest retail location. We’re really connecting this ecosystem in the hair industry to best serve the consumer. And all of that is done through a digital hair profile. Just think of us as leading the digital transformation of the hair industry. That’s what we’re building in Myavana.

William Leonard

Love that. I love how you tied it to 23andme. When you think about this process of taking a picture, sending in a follicle, what is the timeline like there? How long can I expect to have some type of insight or plan tailored to me?

Candace Mitchell

It can take as soon as five business days, or up to two to three weeks depending on our volume, but you’ll get answers quickly. It’s really a comprehensive breakdown of your hair, which a lot of customers are always surprised by just the actual condition of their hair, or they thought their hair texture was this, but it’s actually that. That explains why these types of products don’t work and how these are the best for you. It really just breaks it down. It really taps into personalization, which has been shaping many markets for the past decade. We were really at the forefront of that. Just literally being able to take all this hair data and create a personalized experience is really what the industry has been missing. The AHA! moments from the customers are the best part.

William Leonard

I love how you touch on the customization aspect of things. When you think about startups that have that strong consumer piece to them, customization is everything. You see it in other companies, they give you a customized lawn plan. With a B to C subscription, you have customized vitamins that can be sent to your door. I think this is a really interesting approach and you know, you’ve been in the space for some time now. How do you see or better yet like what is the state of innovation in the haircare space? What types of other tangential intimate innovations are you seeing that could be partnered or work well with Myavana?

Candace Mitchell

I’ve seen a lot of innovative hair tools now coming out. Tools just around really the first one was the ionic flat iron, which is safer and healthier in terms of applying heat on your hair and also straightening. The hair detanglers. A lot has been done to really, again, create better tools, but also those that have some digital component, right? Because we’re getting into the Internet of Things and being able to read in real-time, what’s happening with your hair and having your tools talk to each other to know what you should do next. That’s emerging. I will say there have definitely been a lot of customized hair products, there have been a number of companies that have launched that. What’s different with Myavana is that we don’t customize the formulations, we customize your regimens because we believe that there are already thousands of products out on the market. It’s not that we need another product, we need to know how to use the products that are currently out there, and what to use, and how much and kind of all those questions that are related to technique and application. But we have seen a lot of the corporations now have innovation teams, and so they are also always on the hunt. We talked to a lot of them, and we are partnering with some of those big corporations that you’ll soon hear about. But it’s definitely picking up and I think that it’s about time. I would say that I kind of always felt like an outlier being focused on beauty from the time from the context of innovation. But now it’s truly picking up and beyond here and to makeup and skincare as well.

William Leonard

I was gonna say when you think about hair care, you also think about skin care as well, and seeing a lot of customizable solutions in that space, too. What does success look like for Myavana for the rest of this year? What are some of the big initiatives, some big news around the company that you would love for our listeners to know about and really to look out for?

Candace Mitchell

We have a major partnership that is almost finalized with the global corporation around personalized hair care education. We’re really excited about that. We’re pretty much integrated with all products out on the market. We have the opportunity to partner with all of them to better reach their customers. We have a big global partnership that we will be announcing soon, as well as the next launch of the next release of our mobile app. We are always introducing new features. We have a massive amount of content and data that we’ve captured, to be able to better tailor experiences to consumers. And so we’re super excited about that, along with some influencer partners that will be joining the company to again help us spread the word. One thing that’s unique about the businesses we have, we have had global customers from the beginning. We are already in the works of launching two partnerships, one in Canada and one in the UK. Partnering with salons there so that we can establish our hair labs in that location, which makes it easier for our customers in Canada, and in the UK to be able to mail their hair kits directly to those locations. We are also sourcing a location in Africa and so we’re excited to share about that. Again, reaching women all over the world is something that I didn’t realize that we would be growing into so soon. But I’m excited to share more about that, as that rolls out this fall.

William Leonard

That’s awesome. I’m excited to hear more news about the partnerships there. You mentioned something that was really interesting. I would love for you to briefly touch on it. You said you’ve had international customers really since the start as an early-stage company, how do you kind of get to that scale? How do you reach those international customers early on without losing focus on where you are domestically?

Candace Mitchell

That’s a great question. It happened unexpectedly. As we grew in the first few years, we got a massive amount of press features. It seemed like every day someone was reaching out really to cover this story because again, it was such an innovative approach to hair care. One of our segments was on CNN, it was a small business success story. And that is when we saw the most amount of international customers come in because of where it was broadcasted. It was very exciting to see orders coming in from all these different countries. But then, of course, we had to figure out things like shipping and logistics just to make it still a great experience. But then we got even more requests for establishing new locations back then, which I knew probably wasn’t the best time from an operational scamp standpoint. You have to kind of balance the excitement with what makes logical sense, from a finance standpoint, so that you can stay focused because there’s definitely a thing of expanding too soon, which causes a lot of operational stress on the business. Because at the time, we were just trying to keep up with the number of orders that we had. That’s something where you have, even though it is exciting you have to kind of say, “Not now.” so that you can surely wait until the best time. That was really eye-opening at that time. Something that we just have to continue growing the relationships until it is the right time such as now.

William Leonard

I think that’s one thing that we’ve all have heard before, is growing too quickly can kill a startup as well. I think you, being the leader and the CEO, have to really find that healthy balance of expansion, but expansion at a controlled, healthy pace that we can keep up with. I think that’s a really interesting insight there. As we wrap up the conversation here, you are an Atlanta native. You went to school here. What impact has Atlanta had on Myavana? Was there ever a point in your mind where you consider taking this to a market like LA or New York? Has Atlanta always been, where you want to build this?

Candace Mitchell

Yes. Atlanta has always been where I wanted us to really have our foundation, because it’s really the culture that really drives success, in my opinion. I feel that Atlanta has the best mix of cultures and especially for our focus on Black women as our first target market. It was the hair capital of the world. We were certainly in the right place. Actually, what was interesting is that the hair market was booming, but the tech startup world was just emerging at the time when we were growing. It’s been kind of this thing where managing the pace like I did had to go to other cities for resources in the beginning because Atlanta was still growing. But now it is on the map, so to speak, right? We can officially claim that title as a tech hub that other markets respect. That took some time, right? But I do see Myavana growing in other markets. We are already growing in the LA market and establishing a presence there because again, the nature of the industry, we have to go to where our customers are, right? Our customers, our partners, and so we are looking at LA, Oakland, New York, Detroit, Houston again, wherever our customers congregate and live. We want to have a presence there because again, we have a direct to consumer products, but we have a B2B network. We are always looking at all aspects of that, and growing internationally as well. But I will just say that Atlanta will always be home and really always be our home base. I’m just excited to see how the city has grown and everyone else’s success. It’s been years in the making, almost a decade, 15 years, and so it’s really a great time to continue that momentum.

William Leonard

I totally agree. You think about where Atlanta has been, and where it is now. It’s almost a night and day difference. So to have companies like Myavana that are here that have put down roots and really have grown along with the city is very encouraging to see. I’m excited to hear more about the partnerships that are revealed this fall, Candace. I really appreciate you joining here and sharing a lot of insight into your journey of building Myavana and giving a lot of advice to our listeners on if they’re technical, how they can kind of establish that business toolkit, and then think about expansion. Of course, not too quickly, but at the early stages of their business and in many other insights. I really appreciate you joining me here today. 

Candace Mitchell

Thanks for having me. 

William Leonard

Awesome. Cheers, Candace. 

Lisa

Thank you for listening to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. You know, we’re not just a podcast, we’re a community, and we’d love to see you at one of our digital or physical events, go to valor.VC and sign up for an event that makes sense for you. We have events for founders and the investors who back them. Another event you might enjoy is Startup Runway. The Startup Runway Foundation is a Valor organization that provides $10,000 grants to founders who are women or people of color building next-generation software products. Applications are free and we’d love to hear from you at startuprunway.org. And as always, thank you so much to the organizations that make this podcast possible. Not only Valor Ventures, but also Write2Market, a tech marketing and PR agency in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Startup Runway Foundation and Atlanta Tech Park Valley’s headquarters, and also headquarters for over 100 local entrepreneurs, building global businesses. See you next week. Please bookmark the podcast and join us.